Diversity makes comprehensive plan a difficult task

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Anne Gorsuch, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, was a controversial Colorado politician best remembered (by me, anyway), for coining the phrase “nothingburger.”

I thought of Anne as I plowed through the dismal bureaucratese of PlanCOS, the newest iteration of the city’s comprehensive plan. Here’s a sample paragraph:

“In the coming decades, Colorado Springs will become a vibrant community that reflects our engaging outdoor setting as pioneers of health and recreation. Our city will be filled with unique places of culture and creative energy, sustainably designed around our natural environment. We will attract and retain residents of all generations with an innovative, diverse economy and dynamic, well-connected neighborhoods that provide viable housing opportunities for all.”

That’s an invitation to a veritable feast of nothingburgers, an aspirational document for the ages — or maybe for the next decade. The plan’s recommended policies and courses of action are nonbinding, tentative and, perhaps, naively hopeful.

That may be because, as the authors of the plan acknowledge, our city is too big, too diverse and too scattered (both mentally and physically!) to fit into a single, unifying comprehensive plan. Residents of the far northeast suburbs have little in common with those in the southeast, while future residents of the Banning-Lewis Ranch and southwest downtown have yet to arrive in Colorado Springs. And then there’s the tax thing — despite our doughty tax-raising mayor, this is still Colorado Springs, and we don’t like new taxes, so forget it if it comes with a bill!

Almost 30 years ago, I had a long chat with Pike Oliver, the planner who wrote the original Banning-Lewis master plan.

I asked him what the development would look like in 2020, when it was anticipated to be fully built out.

“It’ll be a city like any other,” Pike told me. “It’ll have houses, apartment buildings, shopping centers, museums, parks, restaurants, bars and strip clubs — every kind of use that cities have.”

A whole new city? On empty prairie miles away from any development?

“John,” said Pike, “The market does not oppose suburbanization.”

Pike was right. But thanks to the onerous provisions of the original Banning-Lewis annexation agreement, developers and buyers leapfrogged Pike’s planned prairie metropolis and created even more remote subdivisions in unincorporated El Paso County.

In a nod to regionalism, PlanCOS calls for “collaborative regional improvements that benefit [Colorado Springs Utilities] ratepayers … [this includes] providing smaller water utility districts with renewable surface water as available through the CSU system so local groundwater resources are not depleted.”

Selling water to developments in the county may bring short-term benefits to ratepayers, but you can’t easily weasel out of such deals. Given that global climate change will severely impact both the Arkansas and Colorado River drainages, elected officials ought to act as water fiduciaries, with a duty to conserve and protect our liquid capital. On the other hand, what would we do if one of those subdivisions simply ran out of water? We’d provide it.

Yet another interesting policy suggestion concerns roads — they should be narrower.

“The total lane miles of streets maintained by the City are an important barometer of the efficiency of our land use patterns,” the plan states. “By reducing the amount of new street pavement added to the city compared to the additional development activity the system serves, future street maintenance costs will be reduced because there will be less pavement to maintain per person. … [I]deas and priorities that contribute to this indicator include increased density in targeted activity centers and corridors, infill and redevelopment … and recommendations for narrow local street profiles.”

That’s bad news for those who drive monster pickups, but it reflects a key PlanCOS assumption: that future growth and redevelopment will feature walkable, bikeable mixed-use communities, not the suburban beige-
scapes that currently ring Colorado Springs.

Twenty years hence, will Banning-Lewis have become a thoroughly modern version of Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood? Will southwest downtown be Cherry Creek on steroids? Will we have had the sense to “preserve existing and potential railway corridors within the city for possible use as future rail corridors between Colorado Springs and Denver,” as PlanCOS suggests?

I don’t know, but I do know who will decide.

The market.